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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Michael Boccacino: "Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling"

Author:  Michael Boccacino   
Series:  Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling   
Plot Type:  Horror Fantasy   
Ratings:  V4; S2; H1   
Publisher:  William Morrow (Imprint of HarperCollins)

     This novel is on the final ballot for the 2012 Bram Stoker Award for a first novel in the horror genre. Set in Blackfield, a rural village in what appears to be Victorian England, this is a gothic horror story that puts one in mind of Henry James' Turn of the Screw or Charlotte  Brontë's Jane Eyre, each with its own intrepid governess, decaying estate, fog-shrouded woodlands, and otherworldly bumps in the night. To get the "gothiness" off to a good start, the book's opening line mimics that of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca: "Every night I dreamt of the dead."

     In this case, the governess is the recently widowed Charlotte Markham; the estate is Everton; and the master of the house is the recently widowed Henry Darrow, who hires Charlotte to tend to the education of his two boys, Paul and James. Although the people living on the estate and in the village are normal human beings, many of them believe (though they might not admit it to one another) that, as Shakespeare said, "There are more things in heaven and earth...Than are dreamt of...." (Hamlet, Act I)

     The themes of the story are the strength of family ties and the lengths people will go to save those they love.

             THE STORY             
     After Charlotte lost her husband in a fire that destroyed their home, she was hired as a governess for Paul and James Darrow. As the story begins, Charlotte has been in residence for several months, and the boys' mother has been dead for almost a year. Charlotte suffers from horrific nightmares featuring all of her dead loved ones: her mother, father, and husband, all of whom were visited by an ominous man in black at the moment of their deaths. Each time, the mysterious man then disappeared into thin air. Meanwhile, both Paul and James are having scary nightmares about their beloved mother. 

     In the book's first scene, the boys' nanny is found murdered, and Charlotte steps up to become the boys' sole caretaker/teacher. Since their mother's death, their father has been a remote, grief-stricken fixture in the house, spending his days sequestered in his study and his nights roaming the vast household. Charlotte also wanders the house at night, and the two have frequently met in the music room to talk about their respective losses. One of the story threads involves Charlotte's growing attraction to her employer (and vice versa).

     One day, Charlotte responds to one of Paul's dreams about his mother by taking the boys on an outing in the forest. As they follow Paul's map of his dream, they find themselves in The Ending, a mysterious place that hosts a number of strange creatures that are doomed to eternal life because Death cannot enter The Ending. As they enter The Ending, they approach the ominous House of Darkling, where they areshockinglymet by Lily Darrow, the boys' supposedly dead mother, and she's not a ghost. The House is a hugely magnificent mansion full of wondrous, and sometimes horrible, creatures and odditieslike something out of a dark fairy tale (or something from H. P. Lovecraft's imagination). The author eloquently describes each and every one of the freaky knickknacks of Darkling, but eventually the continuous stream of minutely detailed descriptions does become tedious. 

     As Charlotte and the boys make several visits to House of Darkling, Charlotte begins to realize that Lily has made a horrible bargain with Mr. Whatley, the master of Darkling, in order to be with her sons once more. Whatley is playing a deadly game with all of them, and Charlotte is determined to be the winner. In another gothic reference, Whatley himself is a throwback to Emily Brontë's Heathcliff: "He had a windswept look about him, his hair wild and disheveled, his clothing very fine but rumpled, his shirt not entirely tucked in, his collar askew, yet the most interesting thing about him was his eyesso dark that no light escaped them..." (p. 118)    

     Most of the creatures in The Ending look like humans, but it is soon obvious that they are wearing human skin over some seriously weird shapes. (Tentacled monsters that look suspiciously like Lovecraft's Cthulhu are a continuing theme.) Here's an example, as Mr. Whatley hosts a dinner: "'It is our tradition that the host of any gathering make an offer of friendship, and the best thing that anyone can hope to give is a piece of themselves.'...Mr. Whatley's human hand unraveled into a conjoined grouping of tentacles. He sliced off one of the smaller limbs with the knife, and the hand re-formed no worse for wear. The foot-long piece of flesh fell into the sauté pan, and the servant quickly divided it into sixteen equal portions, tossing them in the air to brown them on all sides. When he was finished, he rolled the cart around the table and served each of the guests a cooked piece of Mr. Whatley." (p. 179) In another scene, one of the guest gets tired of listening to a conversation about politics, so she just pulls off her ears and puts them in her purse.

     Charlotte is a strong character from the very beginning. She is definitely not the usual shy, virginal, Brontë governess. Charlotte was raised in exotic India, has been married, and has gone through a series of personal losses that have taken away any innocence she may have once had. She handles the boys with love, but she is also quite firm, sometimes using Indian curses and threats to keep them under control. Here's an example of Charlotte's response to a raging fight between the two boys: "It's nothing to me if you want to kill one another...I imagine that it would be much easier to care for one child as opposed to two...If violence and murder are the methods you choose to use when dealing with family, then we can only surmise the tactics you might use when dealing with your peers would be that much worse. We would be forced to lock you away in the attic for the good of the village. I don't believe that such an existence would be a very pleasant one, but then it's not up to me to make your decisions for you." (p. 39) So...going into the story, we understand that Charlotte is practical and realistic in her views of life, even though her disturbing dreams plunge her into a night-time world of hallucinatory fantasy. The one element that is missing from Charlotte's personality is a sense of fear or awe; she seems emotionally unaffected by the  strange and frightening aspects of the House of Darkling: the appearance of the dead wife, the evilness of Mr. Whatley, the horror of the tentacled monsters, and the realization of what her final choice must be. As each strange event occurs, Charlotte's only thought is of how it will affect the children. There is a jarring duality of Charlotte's character as she exhibits such dispassionate behavior when confronted with the alarming elements of the House of Darkling, but pines like a young girl for Henry Darrow's affections.

     The plotthe "game" played by Mr. Whatley and Charlottedidn't really grab me until the final scenes. In the early stages, the dialogue between the two was nebulous and unfathomable, and the rules of the game were hard to decipher. But by the last five chapters, the book had become a page-turner, with compelling action and escalating suspense driving the plot to the final climactic scene and the ambiguous ending.

     The descriptive language is lush and beautifully contrived. Each oddity of the mansion is described at length, in great detail. If you enjoy atmospheric writing, you'll like that aspect of the book. Here's an example: "The elegant crystal chandeliers that hung in empty space above the room began to bloom with liquid flame, light erupting out of them like stars to illuminate the corners of the space where gilded curios and antique end tables held glittering, unknowable things: strange pools of water that rippled in place but did not drip or cascade unto the floor; an iridescent apple with skin so glossy and sleek that the light it invited made it appear translucent; a portrait of a crying old woman whose tears smeared the paint; a pair of shears so sharp they seemed to cut the very light that touched their edges. But these baubles were nothing compared to the transformation that occurred at the center of the room in the mosaic. The floor was blazing with a radiant fire, pulsing in time to the silent song of the universe, throbbing with life and energy, searing not the eyes but something secret in the soul." (p. 91)

     Click HERE to read a free, on-line epilogue to Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling. If you enjoy this book, I recommend that you try Ransom Riggs' "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children." Click HERE to read my review of that book.

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